Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Evolution of Oz history Part 1

Have been having an enjoyable discussion over on The Resident Judge of Port Phillip blog.
Discussion, not argument, merrily tossing about suggestions and ideas for possible 'unofficial' censorship or self-censorship of and by historians in the past.
But why self-censorship?
Australian history was only recognised as a university-worthy subject (or rather one that had matured sufficiently) in the 1930s. Prior to this the British Empire history (including the American Revolution, British India, etc) in all her glory was served on a platter with not a hint that Oz existed from 1862 in Melbourne and Sydney Uni's until 1930s when the subject of Oz history began to grow.
Which is in part thanks to Sir Stephen Roberts; he was a pioneer in historic Oz research, he was offered the Vice-Chancellor chair at Sydney Uni at the start of the Great Depression yet he still managed to publish 6 books (4 on the new-ish Australian History) within the following 8 years.
Let's weigh this up - Great Depression, not a brass razoo to be had anywhere so this bloke knows which side his bread is buttered on. Amazingly 6 books got published in a time when kids were going hungry and barefoot and when Oz history was thought to be still new beside British and American history.
Historians have had a long pattern for aping their peers and regurgitating the same information so while Roberts may have been a trail-blazer and set the standard for research, publishing and subsequently promoting the subject of Oz history following historians did not make any great dints in the wealth of evidence and information offered to them.
In 1938 Aboriginal People declared the first Day of Mourning, while some had voting rights they were discouraged from doing so, mainstream media used the then-accepted racist terms,  some schools were still excluding Indigenous children, education was not seen as a priority for Aboriginal People, White Australia policy was in effect, it wasn't that long after court cases heard the guilt or otherwise of white men murdering Aboriginal People (with Indigenous People declared unreliable witnesses) etc.
That is the world in which Roberts (and later historians) was publishing his work, during a financial crisis far greater than the current one; he is not likely to have challenged accepted public opinions, so entrenched and planted by the media, or his peers' work outright else he would not have had anything published. Unofficial censorship, of the self-determining kind was most likely; keeping his head down below the parapet but having sly pot shots now and then in his works.
By this time some of Oz history had had the 'white wash' applied, making it more palatable to some sectors of society which would have stuck in Roberts' throat as he belonged to a group of historians that frowned upon romanticising history, hence the cheeky pot shots.

Aborigines attend schools

Aboriginal Children; Objection to presence at school

The Colour Line at School

Coloured Children in Schools

Reynolds, H, 1999, Why weren't we told?. p.90.
Christie, M.F, 1979, Aborigines in Colonial Victoria 1835-1886 p.93-94.


  1. What I love most about Oz history is the way in which 'baddies' are always labelled as British and 'goodies' as Australian, even if they were both alive at the same time, both born and bred in Oz, and sometimes, even, both the same person. It gives Australian history that naturally biased slant that all good history's seem to have and that is, and always has been since history began, required by patriotic law.